February 9, 2009 — As the first varsity coach of University of Virginia women's basketball in 1973, Barbara Kelly organized the team, planned the schedule, budgeted for and bought equipment, handled public relations — and washed the fledgling team's uniforms.
Nowadays, the University's nearly 400 female student-athletes are outfitted head to toe by sponsor Nike. They've gone from having many needs to no needs in terms of equipment, said Jane Miller, senior associate athletics director. Coaches of women's sports, who were volunteers in those early days, are now respected, well-paid members of the athletics department.
From Kelly's first day in Memorial Gymnasium in 1971, when she heard several male coach-administrators saying, "What do we do with her?," to these days of her last semester on the job, she has figured out what to do — without much help or fanfare. When she retires after 38 years, she will leave a thriving program with 13 women's intercollegiate teams, one more than the men.
Kelly was recognized Sunday for her pioneering efforts at U.Va.'s home basketball game against Virginia Tech, as part of the U.Va. Women's Center's celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports Day.
She continues to be an unwavering promoter of women's athletics, and still thinks sports should offer women more opportunities in areas such as coaching.
"I was driven," she said of her typical long workdays. She likened building the program to building a house. "I liked being the designer," she said.
Kelly credits Student Affairs administrators with giving her much-needed moral support and helping drum up interest in sports among the women who were flooding the once predominantly male University in the 1970s. Annette Gibbs, hired in 1970 as an associate dean to help female undergraduates get acclimated to U.Va. —and vice versa — supported the need for women's athletic scholarships, for example. Grants-in-aid were first offered in 1976.
Hired to develop the women's athletics program, Kelly, who had worked in the Norfolk school system for 10 years, took her job seriously. Starting with nothing, she first created intramural sports, which she expanded into club sports and then up to intercollegiate or varsity sports for women in just a few years. By 1975, basketball, field hockey and tennis became the first women's varsity sports.
She oversaw the refitting of bathrooms for women. She drove female basketball players to their games in a van. When she finally elbowed her way into University Hall, she took over a larger storage closet for an office. She wielded Title IX federal legislation for equality in athletics.
Now, for all students, intramural sports have branched in many directions, from aqua toning to yoga, and there are more than 65 club sports, from archery to ultimate Frisbee. Club sports play other teams in Virginia and are eligible to apply for Student Council funding.
A lover of history, Kelly is organizing the archives of women's sports and athletic activities at U.Va. She said it's especially important for younger students who don't realize what had to be done to create the athletic opportunities they may take for granted. She also evaluates athletics Web sites, a hobby she might turn into a consulting business when she retires.
"Her efforts paved the way for more and more female student-athletes and coaches to come to this great University and participate in a premier athletics program," Miller said. "I was one of those coaches, and I am very grateful to Barbara and others for the opportunity to be at Virginia."
In 2002, the Atlantic Coast Conference recognized Kelly as the founder and first tournament director of the ACC Women's Basketball Tournament, first held in 1977.
Challenged to prove there was enough interest in women's basketball to establish a women's tournament, she first organized an invitational tournament. The ACC leaders were so impressed that they agreed to make it official.
U.Va. women's basketball coach Debbie Ryan, an assistant coach at the time, called Kelly a visionary.
"She was not afraid to see things that never were and make them happen," Ryan said. "Barbara taught me to have convictions and then to follow through, making the improbable possible. No hurdle was too high for Barbara, and her dream of having an ACC Tournament in women's basketball quickly became a reality because of her persistence."
It was Kelly who recommended elevating Ryan to become head coach. Both now cancer survivors, the two women remain each other's fans.
"Barbara set the bar high for me as a young coach and fully expected me to meet her expectations and carry the flag for women athletics as I grew in the profession," Ryan said. "I will always be grateful to Barbara for giving me the freedom to find my own way while providing me with all the tools necessary to be a successful professional. Her foresight made so many things possible for women in sport today."
Kelly said Everett Case, known as the father of ACC basketball, was a role model who spurred her on.
A native of Garner, N.C., where she plans to return after she retires, she asked Case why girls didn't play college basketball. He replied that maybe they would – one day.
But she ran into obstacles in high school. Denied a place on her high school baseball team just because she was a girl (though she did play basketball), she went home crying. The family housekeeper, Lois Stanley-Judd, comforted her and told her she could change the rules.
And that's what she did.